Op-Ed

One strategy to curb school shootings: Practice kindness to students dealing with challenges

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After the horrific slaughter of innocents in Newtown, Conn., a beautiful National Rifle Association spokeswoman described an emotionally wrenching possibility before a congressional committee:

She might be playing on the living room floor with her children when a man bearing an assault-type weapon bursts in on them. What if she had no weapon at the ready to protect her innocents, presumably a loaded semi-automatic weapon of her own? No congress member asked what she might do if her ready weapon was in the living room, but the assailant burst into the kitchen as she and the children were making cookies.

In response to continuing school shootings, some politicians suggest arming at least one designated and trained teacher in each school. Most teachers adamantly oppose such plans, but, assuming such policies are implemented, we still have the dilemma of the NRA spokeswoman.

What if the teacher works on one side of the school and a shooter enters the other side? Or if the designated teacher is out sick or out earning necessary continuing education credits? Or, gobs of scenarios might support training more teachers and selling more firearms to the over 130,000 pre-college schools in the United States — a bonanza in gun sales.

I don’t have comprehensive data on school shooters, but media reports suggest most shooters had a negative relationship with the school they assaulted. Shooters felt deeply alienated from most school staff and other students. Frequently shooters killed themselves or were killed when law enforcement arrived. They’re so angrily desperate they don’t care what happens to them.

Legal consequences are no deterrent and knowing someone in the school has a weapon is probably not either. A serious preventive alternative is to improve what many schools, teachers and students already do well: practice kindness.

Practice kindness towards students disadvantaged by a history of abuse, by social awkwardness or by poorly controlled anger and other obnoxious behaviors. Be kind but firm with students who are disruptive and find them the help or mental-health treatment they need. Work towards a school culture of acceptance and mutual support.

I would offer a decades-old example from Fayette County. Until 1975, students classified as moderately mentally disabled were served in facilities located apart from the regular public schools. That year, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed by Congress and signed into law. For the first time, the Fayette schools placed those children in two of their elementary public schools.

As a practicing child psychologist, I had the opportunity to visit both schools. At one school there was little work to facilitate integration of the handicapped students into the school culture. At old Johnson Elementary, principal Patricia Michaux prepared students and staff to take an active role with the new students. Regular students who did well academically or in other ways could earn time to help the students.

It became truly cool to work in the special-education classroom or to know the handicapped students and be able to greet them by name in the hallways. Other students also strove to learn the student’s names and greet them. New students who might otherwise be avoided or shunned were integrated into a culture of kindness.

Currently, programs of peer mediation, restorative justice, social emotional learning, and nonviolence practice are changing the cultures of many schools across the country.

For example, Fayette County’s Edythe J. Hayes Middle School, using a restorative-justice approach, trains selected youth in conflict-resolution skills. These youth, under faculty observation, function as peer mediators and role models in helping their classmates resolve conflicts peaceably.

Arming teachers or more kindness? If the henchmen of the NRA in Congress would lift the law prohibiting the Centers or Disease Control from researching issues related to gun violence, we might have answers to such critical questions.

T. Kerby Neill of Lexington is on the board of the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice.

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